Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil

Disappointing Follow Up
Clever was the marketer who put the animals on the cover of Beatrice and Virgil, which is designed to look like it's Life of Pi, part deux. But while this book, too, features talking animals, it has none of the charm of its predecessor. It's a slight little book, barely half the size of Life of Pi and with half the interest. The not-at-all-shocking secret at the end of the book (which you'll figure out a few pages in if you have any sense at all of dramatic irony) is probably supposed to add heft and make B&V feel bigger than it is...but it doesn't.

This feels like Martel had to churn something out--indeed, the Martel-ish narrator has a serious case of writer's block--and so he came up with a little writing experiment, carried it out, and published it with a donkey and a monkey on the cover to sell some copies. Fans of Life of Pi deserved better.

This is an Amazon Vine review, available here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pass the Bill. Now.

This morning congressional Democrats are talking about killing their year-in-the-making health care bill because Martha Coakley lost in Massachusetts. This would be the stupidest thing they have ever done.

Well, maybe not as stupid as spending months talking to Mike Enzi about health care reform. Or dithering until history could call Olympia Snowe. (I guess that was actually a wrong number.)

But it will be stupid nonetheless. A year ago, a generation watched as the president we elected pledged to change the nation. He brought with him sweeping majorities in both houses and a mandate to fix things. A year later, an entire generation is being told that our votes matter less than those of a few cranky Red Sox fans. The Senate health care reform is not perfect--far from it. But it represents a vast improvement over the status quo, and the willingness of Democrats to scuttle it over a single election--to give up Ted Kennedy's dream, essentially, because Ted died!--is shameful. If we cannot face down a few foaming-at-the-mouth Republicans, why should the American people trust us to face down tougher challenges?

Pass the bill. Do it today. Do it proudly, with heads held high, knowing you are on the right side of history. Campaign that way, never apologizing, praising the merits of the bill, reminding people of all the good it contains and all the problems it will fix. THAT is how you win elections. And even if we still lose in least Dems will have done something with the mandate given in 2008. Something lasting. Something real. Something for the history books. Anything else will be a disappointment that a generation, ready and willing to be Democrats for life if only the party earns that loyalty, will not soon forget.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Adam Haslett, Union Atlantic

Decade's First Masterpiece
Adam Haslett began as a short story writer, a fact very much in evidence in this, his first novel. Clocking in at 304 pages, Union Atlantic will give no one eyestrain, with generous line spacing and margins. A cheaper publisher would have crammed the whole thing into 200 pages and saved money on paper.

So this is a novel, but it is not a long one. Which makes Haslett's achievement all the more remarkable, for Union Atlantic is positively symphonic in its ambitions. It contains the world! Rich and poor, black and white, gay and straight, high finance and common drudgery, war and peace, young and old and in-between. Two well-drawn main characters--next-door neighbors embroiled in a battle over, at root, the tearing down of trees--lead us out into a whole host of others, each given subtle shadings and motivations that ring true. A bank--and the entire financial system!--teeter quietly on the brink of oblivion, as do an old woman's sanity, a young man's sexuality, and an in-between man's understanding of why he is who he is.

Never preachy, never ripped-from-the-headlines, Union Atlantic still, somehow, captures a precise moment in time and preserves it. The run-up to yet another Middle East war, the crashing-down of the regulatory apparatus and near ruin of the economic system, the brand-new giant houses devoid of furniture or feeling--these give the novel heft even as its persuasive characters give it heart.

By chronicling, so concisely and yet so thoroughly, the perils and plagues and passions of the century's first decade, Haslett has crafted the first literary masterpiece of its second.

This is an Amazon Vine review, available here.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Best Albums of the Decade

Rather than be guided by the top-ten convention, I let the music be my muse for this list. Six albums stood out clearly from the pack, followed by nineteen albums that merited an honorable mention, for a total of twenty-five albums offered in two tiers and otherwise listed by release date. I believe the top six are, artistically, the highlights of the decade; the remainder of the list is made up of albums whose artistic merits I would gladly defend, but my connection to many of them is more personal. (Note: No artist could make the list more than once.)

Top Tier:
Kid A - Radiohead (2000)
Love and Theft - Bob Dylan (2001)
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco (2002)
Funeral - Arcade Fire (2004)
Van Lear Rose - Loretta Lynn (2004)
Sound of Silver - LCD Soundsystem (2007)

Tier Two:
Gold - Ryan Adams (2001)
Vespertine - Bjork (2001)
A Rush of Blood to the Head - Coldplay (2002)
Turn on the Bright Lights - Interpol (2002)
Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots - Flaming Lips (2002)
Chutes Too Narrow - The Shins (2003)
Dear Catastrophe Waitress - Belle & Sebastian (2003)
Failer - Kathleen Edwards (2003)
Want One - Rufus Wainwright (2003)
Eveningland - Hem (2004)
Our Endless Numbered Days - Iron & Wine (2004)
Scissor Sisters - Scissor Sisters (2004)
Extraordinary Machine - Fiona Apple (2005)
I Am A Bird Now - Antony and the Johnsons (2005)
The Forgotten Arm - Aimee Mann (2005)
Black Cadillac - Rosanne Cash (2006)
Boxer - The National (2007)
The Con - Tegan and Sara (2007)
In Ghost Colours - Cut Copy (2008)

Friday, December 11, 2009

One Decade, One Disc--Sort Of

Looking for your best of 2009? Probably not, considering how infrequently I post and how little commentary I've made about music of late. Go get Grizzly Bear and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, that's my advice about 2009. Or just watch Bad Romance over and over until you know all the words and all the moves and all the outfits by heart. Not that I've done that...

Anyway, what I do have for you is a decade-spanning compilation. One song per year, though not necessarily from that year--the songs are all from this decade, and they're matched up to something that happened in a particular year. But of course, in recognition of the fact that blogging is really just navel-gazing, the things that happened, well, they happened to me. So if it doesn't all make sense, you can be forgiven for just listening to 10 pretty good songs and not trying to figure it all out. Enjoy!

Take Your Mama Out - Scissor Sisters (2000)
New York, New York - Ryan Adams (2001)
Minneapolis - Lucinda Williams (2002)
Optimistic - Radiohead (2003)
Fistful of Love - Antony and the Johnsons (2004)
In the Backseat - Arcade Fire (2005)
Someone Great - LCD Soundsystem (2006)
Even If It Kills Me - Motion City Soundtrack (2007)
Call It Off - Tegan and Sara (2008)
31 Today - Aimee Mann (2009)

Want it? Click here.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Douglas Coupland, Generation A

Coupland is Back!
The stories we tell ourselves define us--in fact, they're so important they can save the world. And when we stop telling them, stop reading them, stop caring, we become a planet of zombies, doomed to destroy ourselves. That's the far-fetched, but never heavy-handed, message of Generation A, a vigorous return to form for Douglas Coupland that updates his tale of disaffection for a new generation.

The story revolves around five young people around the globe, each of whom is stung by a bee. No big deal--except that bees have gone extinct. There are no flowers, fruit is a hand-pollinated luxury item, and almost everyone is addicted to watching old YouTube videos or playing World of Warcraft--and to a new drug that can make people stop caring about the future.

Why were the five young people stung? This mystery propels the book forward at a galloping pace; I tore through its 300 pages in two days. The message is subtle but unmistakable; dark humor populates every page, but Coupland has serious, timely concerns, and he's created one hell of a page-turner to convey them.

This is an Amazon Vine review, available here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

D.C. Pierson, The Boy Who Couldn't Sleep (and Never Had To)

Great Premise, Iffy Execution
Fantastic title? Check. Great cover art? Check. Interesting narrator? Check.

This should be a five-star enterprise, right? And it is interesting and engaging and evocative of what it feels like to be a kid in high school--right up until the big reveal (spoiled by the title, but a secret for almost half the book). Before that happens, the little framing narrative at the beginning seems like a cryptic curiosity; afterward the expectation that somehow the other half of the frame will provide some closure grows and grows as things take several madcap turns. These madcap turns, and the second half of the frame's failure to provide closure, make it impossible for me to give this book more than three stars. Too bad--the materials were definitely there for something better. I'd definitely give Pierson another shot--I just hope he can sustain the same level of quality for the whole book next time.

This is an Amazon Vine review, available here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A.J. Jacobs, The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment

You know how a band you love will make a couple great albums and then you'll be waiting for a new one and instead they'll release an EP of six songs, which is pretty darn good but really is just makes you want another album?

This book is like that. A.J. Jacobs published two winners in a row, first reading the encyclopedia from cover to cover and then reading and following the dictates of the Bible. How do you top that? Apparently you don't; you start doing month-long experiments with your life instead of year-long ones. Whether he's trying out online dating as a woman, living by the code of George Washington, outsourcing his life to India, being "radically honest," or obeying everything his wife Julie says, Jacobs is always witty and observant and trenchant in his commentary on what his experiment has taught him. If you like Jacobs, you'll like this.

But I'm sorry, Julie: I want another big book. I hope A.J. thinks of something to do that doesn't completely turn your life upside down!

This is an Amazon review, available here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City

Lots of laughs, some great lines, but...
But. That's the word I keep coming to as I try to describe this book. But it doesn't make sense, in the end. But the names of the characters are too clever by half. But I'm not sure if this is a 9/11 parable, a twitchy love letter to Manhattan, or a paranoid fantasy written while stoned. But if you want to read Lethem, there are so many other, better books you could choose than this one.

But...should you read this one? I'm not sure. If you do you'll want to put it down after 50 pages, and no one would blame you. It does get better, somehow; the longer you're trapped in Lethem's bizarro-world version of Manhattan the more it all starts to make sense: the eagles chasing the mayor's fixer into the arms of a woman dubbed the Hawkman, the three-legged dog with her own apartment, the doomed space station trapped by Chinese mines, the sculptures of empty space, the gray fog over the city, the snow in August. And then the final chapters roll around, and you feel like finally, you get it, only to turn the final pages and ask yourself: Was he the dupe? Or was I? Much as I want someone to discuss that question with, now that I've finished reading, I don't know if I can recommend subjecting yourself to the same thing.

This is an Amazon Vine review, available here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Change of mind: In Ghost Colours by Cut Copy is my favorite album of 2008.

So far this year it's Grizzly Bear and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but we shall see...

If you're reading this and haven't been by the blog in a while, the Amazon reviews feed has some new stuff in it, including South of Broad by Pat Conroy, The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus by Joshua Kendall, and Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best Music, 2008

Every year I say a little less about music, don't I?

This year I'll keep it super short-and-sweet. My favorite album of the year? Robyn, by Robyn. No one is more surprised by this than me. I also loved @#%&*! Smilers by Aimee Mann, Oracular Spectacular by MGMT, Santogold by Santogold, and A Piece of What You Need by Teddy Thompson.

But the mix of songs I made for 2008 is what really sums the year up for me. Previous years saw a CD-only affair distributed to about five people, but in 2008 it's gone completely digital. No half-steps for me! You can download it here.

And here's a tracklist:
1. The Weepies - Can't Go Back Now
2. MGMT - Time to Pretend
3. Aimee Mann - Freeway
4. Santogold - L.E.S. Artistes
5. Alphabeat - Fascination
6. Robyn - Be Mine!
7. Cut Copy - Lights and Music
8. Wood Brothers - Buckets of Rain
9. Duffy - Rockferry
10. MGMT - Electric Feel
11. Aimee Mann - 31 Today
12. Martha Wainwright - Love is a Stranger
13. Santogold - I'm a Lady
14. Robyn - With Every Heartbeat
15. Teddy Thompson - Jonathan's Book
16. Sigur Ros - Gobbledigook
17. Nada Surf - See These Bones

Next year I'll write a haiku.